7 reasons why thought leaders are often wrong

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Thought leaders are more likely to be wrong than other kinds of thinkers. The Darwinian marketplace of ideas ensures it. You should be skeptical about everything they say.

Yesterday, I defined thought leaders this way:

A thought leader is a person who has created a coherent body of ideas and is effective at communicating and spreading those ideas to an audience they want to influence.

Being right is not in this definition. Scientists test and reject wrong ideas through peer review and experiments. But in the market of ideas, what matters is what catches on, not what’s actually true.

This doesn’t mean thought leaders’ ideas are more likely to be wrong than right. But it does mean they’re more likely to be wrong than other well-researched and tested ideas. Here are 7 reasons why.

1. Thought leaders’ ideas succeed based on emotional resonance, not truth

The thought leader’s job is get you to believe in what they have to say, and to share that idea. The key strategies are capturing your attention with a briefly stated idea and setting the hook with stories. These qualities actually increase the chances of a thought leader’s idea being wrong.

Thought leader ideas must be short and simple to describe, but the truth is often complicated. Their ideas must appeal to the intuition, rather than provable logic. And they spread because of anecdotes about people. “Anecdotal evidence” — stories — are persuasive, but a few cherry-picked data points don’t add up to provable truth.

Emotional resonance is great for thought leaders, but what feels right often isn’t right.

2. Attractive ideas must be new and different

If you agree with everyone else, you can’t stand out. For example, imagine that your message is “Eating more calories than you burn will make you fatter.” This is true. Everyone knows it. As a result, it’s not an appropriate message for a thought leader.

Contrast this with “Getting rid of all the carbs in your diet will help you lose weight,” “You should eat only unprocessed foods,” or “Superfoods like kale and açai will make you healthy.” These are messages at odds with the conventional wisdom. They get attention.

But most of the time, the conventional wisdom, based on decades of experience, is right.

The thought leader may be onto something — some incredible truth that no one else has seen. That’s what they want you to believe. But they may also be onto an incredible falsehood that no one else has seen. Because thought leadership selects for newness and uniqueness, not truth, it’s full of wrong ideas.

3. Thought leaders live in uncharted territory

When I made my living as a thought leader, I was always seeking the unknown. The settled facts held little attraction. What were the big questions no one knew the answers to? What would streaming and ad-skipping do to TV? How would mobile apps change the economy? Those were the kind of questions I pursued.

It’s very hard to find the truth in those spaces, because the trends you are exploring are just getting started. There’s little evidence to go on.

That nearly evidence-free wasteland is where the thought leader thrives, because that’s where you have the most freedom to create new and startling hypotheses about the future.

But with such a dearth of evidence, it’s very hard to know you’re right. When the evidence finally arrives, you often find out you’re wrong.

4. The data that thought leaders cite is questionable

This is related to the “uncharted territory” point. Where’s the data about the success of virtual reality? About presidential use of Twitter? About the health effects of living gluten-free?

There isn’t much, but there is a little. You can see how much venture money got put into VR startups, which presidential tweets got the most retweets, or how the sales of gluten-free products have increased.

Those early sources of data can add a veneer or respectability to a thought leader’s talk, even if they don’t get at the heart of the matter. Take a look at Mary Meeker’s State of the Internet slide decks, which are full of this stuff.

Thought leaders choose data based on its availability, not based on its dependability or relevance. As proof of an argument, data like this is questionable.

5. Thought leaders choose only evidence that supports their claims

When you make your living off of an idea, you need that idea to thrive. Contrary evidence is a threat. This means that thought leaders are bathed in confirmation bias.

Every morsel of evidence that supports your claim goes into the talk — the more emotionally resonant, the better. But when evidence contradicts your claim, your instinct is to ignore it or invalidate it. It can’t be right, because it’s threatens your argument.

This is backwards reasoning when it comes to truth, but a perfectly logical strategy for a thought leader.

6. Controversy fuels thought leadership

There’s nothing that makes a smart thought leader happier than another thought leader saying they’re wrong.

Once you have an opponent, you can have a fight. Fights create visibility. Visibility creates more chances for your idea to spread. If you’re lucky, CNN will put you and your opponent on CNN and you can have a very visible argument. Liberal firebrand Bill Maher and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins have even gone on tour with their opponents in a sort of traveling debate.

While this may seem at odds with the previous point, it’s not contradictory evidence that thought leaders seek out, it’s controversy. You don’t want to integrate your opponents’ points into your own, you just want to retain your same viewpoint and sharpen your talking points against the silly arguments of your adversary.

Smart thought leaders choose viewpoints that will infuriate opponents. That’s not a path to truth, although it does lead to publicity.

7. Thought leadership creates self-reinforcing and biased tribes

Where do thought leaders get their money? While speaking and selling books is great, the real money comes from consulting and research support. If you espouse a certain viewpoint, you’ll have clients who will pay you to research and spread that viewpoint.

This is the main support for think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation. But in a less corrupt way, it happens naturally with any consultant. For example, I get hired only by people who believe in clarity and brevity in business writing. If you’re an IT consultant whose leadership is based on promoting cloud strategies, you get hired by companies that want the cloud to win. Those who disagree are unlikely to pay you.

These tribes create bias. It’s simple self-interest. If you were to back off or change your perspective, your funding would dry up. As a result, you becoming surrounded with like-minded people, which exacerbates your confirmation bias.

What this means for thought leaders, and for you

I don’t expect thought leaders to become any more committed to being right. These trends are too pervasive. In the thought leadership world, being right is less important than than being popular.

But swaddling yourself in confirmation bias is dangerous in the long run. If you are wrong, eventually things will fall apart. If you want a professional lifetime longer than few years, you need to consider how your ideas must evolve. So put aside your biases and at least consider opposing ideas and where they might lead you.

If you are a consumer of these ideas, be aware that they are the opposite of proven, market-tested thinking. Be skeptical. Listen to opponents. Don’t commit your company or your career on a new, emotionally resonant, fast-spreading idea. It might be great. But it might very easily be wrong, too.

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One Comment

  1. How about outing some notable examples of very successful and extremely unscrupulous “thought leaders” like Gwyneth Paltrow?? Her GOOP is an amazing testament to human gullibility. Its clever mixture of truth and wishful thinking separates an astounding amount of money from women trying to improve the quality of their lives. The current brouhaha over Goop’s Jade Egg ($US 66) – “Used by women to increase sexual energy, health, and pleasure, this nephrite jade stone helps connect the second chara (the heart) and yoni for optimal self-love and well being” – is a stunning example of thought leadership.

    Perhaps you could initiate another write-in contest for both contestants and winners. I nominate Paltrow and Goop.